New York Times – Becoming Jane Eyre

Out of the Shadows


Published: December 23, 2009

“It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath,” Charlotte Brontë wrote of her sister Emily’s novel, “Wuthering Heights.” The Brontës brought a new emotional weather to the English novel — stormy, blasted and passionate. “I never saw a Moor,” Emily Dickinson wrote, as though speaking for the whole far-flung Brontë cult. “Yet know I how the Heather looks.”

Illustration by A. Richard Allen
Illustration by A. Richard Allen

“Becoming Jane Eyre,” Sheila Kohler’s muted and gently probing 10th work of fiction, opens during the summer of 1846 amid the “charmless, suffocating streets” of industrial Manchester. The 69-year-old Rev. Patrick Brontë has come from his rural parsonage on the Yorkshire moors to have a cataract removed. He is attended by a hired nurse who raids the kitchen late at night and “gnaws . . . ravenously” at a lamb bone, “grinding on a delicious piece of gristle with her good back teeth.”

Less intrusive is his prim daughter Charlotte, who receives a rejection letter for her first novel on the very day her father submits to surgery, “excruciatingly conscious of the knife’s work in that delicate place.” Charlotte is 30, single, with two unemployed and unmarried younger sisters with rejected novels of their own, “a shiftless, dissipated wreck” of a brother far gone to gin and opium, and an aging father reduced to “a blind mouth.” “What is she to write about now, in the silence of this darkened room?”

The spark for Kohler’s novel was a line from Lyndall Gordon’s biography, “Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life”: “What happened as she sat with Papa in that darkened room in Boundary Street remains in shadow.” Gordon proposed that the crucial breached “boundary” was the adoption of an androgynous pseudo­nym, Currer Bell, which allowed Brontë to project herself beyond the confines of proper domestic womanhood. For Kohler, however, liberation comes with the sudden invention of Brontë’s fictional alter ego, Jane Eyre, the dauntless and self-reliant heroine, both “ire and eyer,” of her second novel. “Sitting by her blinded, silenced father, she dares to take up her pencil and write for the first time in her own voice.”

“Becoming Jane Eyre” is narrated in a continual present, the tense of “becoming.” Short chapters take us back through remembered moments in Charlotte’s life, spots of time that, disguised and transformed, make their way into “Jane Eyre.” From her days as a governess, she invents a bully for the opening pages of the novel. From her difficult period in Brussels, when she fell in love with a married teacher whom she addressed abjectly as “Master,” she draws the contours of “the bigamous Mr. Rochester.” A visit to a “house with battlements” yields a housekeeper’s story of “a madwoman . . . confined up here during the 18th century,” the inspiration for the bestial Creole heiress whom Rochester has locked in his attic. Some parallels between novel and biography seem more of a reach: “An orphan is not so far from a middle child.”

“Becoming Jane Eyre” is divided into three parts, rather grandly called “volumes.” The first, centered on the operation in Manchester, is claustrophobic, with comic relief provided by that peckish nurse. The second opens more broadly into the world of Haworth Parsonage, where tough-minded Emily offers a fresh view of her sister. Why, she wonders, is Charlotte “so preoccupied with her own small problems of love when her brother’s are so much more serious?”

The third section, which follows Charlotte to London after the triumphant publication of “Jane Eyre,” is full of satisfying recognitions. When Charlotte, the plain country girl, reveals herself as the writer behind the pseudonym Currer Bell, her stupefied young publisher echoes Lincoln encountering Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Can this be, is it possible that this little woman is the author of ‘Jane Eyre’?”

“Becoming Jane Eyre” is driven by interesting questions. How exactly does a fictional character take shape in a writer’s imagination? What impact can an invented character have on a writer’s life? Kohler believes that writing “Jane Eyre” was therapeutic for Charlotte, a release from “stifled rage.” “She writes, hardly seeing the words. Her toothache is better, and since she has been writing her bowels, so often obstructed, have moved regularly.”

But the Brontës seem diminished in “Becoming Jane Eyre.” One ­wearies of their incessant questions and exclamations, meant to reproduce their thoughts but sounding a bit too much like 21st-century anxieties. “Can she own these words,” Charlotte wonders, “which speak of the longings of a woman for fulfillment, for love, for the same rights as a man?”

Kohler was wise to pitch the novel in a subdued mode, not vying with the passions unleashed in the Brontë novels or in “Wide Sargasso Sea,” Jean Rhys’s excruciatingly gorgeous fictional evocation of the first Mrs. Rochester’s life. She has written instead a small, uncluttered novel about sibling rivalry and the various meanings of “publication” for women writers in a straitened world where women were supposed to stay private.

Christopher Benfey’s most recent book is “A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade.”